Why getting fix focal lenses VS zooms.

You might have noticed that even compact cameras with interchangeable lenses come with a range of fix focal (also called prime) lenses.  The much anticipated Fuji X-Pro 1 for example, comes with a 3 primes. No zoom at all at launch. The not flawless but yet very good Fuji X100 is a fix 35mm camera. Also I haven't seen a zoom lens on a medium format camera (what pros who don't shoot action actually use) ever.

There is a reason to this: appart from specific cases that require flexibility (shooting a wedding, reporters, etc), it's nearly always best to use a prime lens.

Funnily, every kit lens sold with a DSLR is a zoom that actually comes pretty cheap. There's a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with Nikon or Canon executives feeling all generous and christmassy: those kit lenses are crap. Appart for really premium kits (D4, D700, 5D mkII) of course, but then you do pay the price. 

Those 18-55mm lenses than you get for about 200$ in a kit are the result of manufacturers making you believe that what makes a picture is the camera body. It is in no way the case. What makes the picture is you, then the lens. The camera body is just an interface between you and the lens. Some are better than other for sure, but trust me if I shoot with a 35yo 100$ FE and a 2500$ F6 with the same lens, same film, you can't see the difference. Same goes while shooting a D80 or D700: same lens in normal light condition, you just can't tell.

I'll put aside cases when you just can afford changing lenses and really need the option of zooming in an out. Wedding is one of them, documentary, and I'm guessing other stuff but I never encountered them. I am completely fine shooting primes only. So why are they better:

1/ They are smaller and ligher in anyway: they actually weight less. It's pretty normal since they are mechanically simpler.

2/ They perform better than any zoom, even for sometimes a quarter of the price: sharper, less distortion, etc. Since you have only one length, it can be optimize just for this length when zoom lenses have to make compromise.

3/ They can open wide, down to F1.2 when the best zooms are stuck at F2.8. You can shoot in low light better, get ultra nice bokeh etc. 

4/ They cost a lot less. A 350$ modern prime lens is unmatched by a 1000$ zoom. A good zoom that actually compares usually costs from 800$, up to 1500$. My best prime and probably one of the best on the market, the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AIS costed me 650$, the price of a rather cheap zoom.

5/ It forces you to compose better. You are given a field of view by the lens, you need to interact with your subject, move, turn around it etc. Tell me if that rings a bell: how many time did you not know how to compose a shot, so you just unzoomed to get it all, then maybe photoshop will do the trick with a bit of cropping? I knew it :p Well with a prime lens, you have a given frame so you have to decide what to cut, what to include etc. Beginners working with prime lenses just do improve faster.

Prime lenses lead to more refined composition.

Ok but a a prime lens can only do on thing, so how many of them do I need to cover the range of my needs ???
I'd say 3 is optimal. A wide angle, a 35 or 50mm for multipurpose, and a portrait lens (100mm or 135mm). Remember, they cost lens...sorry less,  so you could get all three for the price of a premium zoom.


  1. Hey, I also use the 50mm 1.2 Nikkor 99% of the time - It's a jewel ;-)

  2. Maybe in the old days of film a camera body was just a body - But today, a Body IS FILM and it makes a huge difference in IQ. And hey that nikkor 1.2 is nice and all, but guess what, the 50 1.8 series E is sharper and has less distortion.

    1. Could be true, still doesn't give you extreme blur. it's about picking what you need most, not what's best in a lab.